Ever since the assumption of power by President Trump and his advocacy of a radically new American approach to global policies, chanceries across Europe, Africa and Asia have appeared bewildered about how to deal with the US. Trump has shocked the European allies by threatening a relook at the Trans-Atlantic cooperation, unless European governments contributed more to NATO. He has imposed higher tariffs on selected European exports. In brief, he has replaced American advocacy of globalisation by the ‘America First’ doctrine. He rejected a global approach to climate change and appeared to be more comfortable dealing with authoritarian ‘strongmen’ than with liberal democrats, like France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel. Europe itself appears to be headed towards becoming more insular, as UK’s Brexit indicates.
In Asia, Trump has dealt harshly with China’s mercantilist trade policies by imposing what could become destabilising tariffs on Chinese exports. Even staunch ally Japan has felt the impact of new American tariffs on its exports. Trump has also withdrawn American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which aimed to link the US with several Asian economies, in a vast Free Trade Area. India has also felt the heavy hand of Trump’s trade policies. New Delhi is now having bilateral negotiations with the US to deal with the challenges it is facing from the Trump administration. Russia is facing the prospect of stringent US sanctions on its exports of petroleum products and arms. Moscow has a partnership with China, despite mutual distrust. Its partnership with China to balance US power does not, however, materially affect Russia’s close ties with India.
Amidst all this volatility in global power equations, India’s most important partner, across its Indian Ocean neighbourhood in the past decade, is Japan. Tokyo has now set aside the serious differences in the years following the 1998 nuclear tests. It has overcome domestic opposition to promote nuclear energy cooperation with India. Both India and Japan have been challenged by Chinese territorial claims and ambitions, together with China’s quest to become a hegemonic power in Asia. India and Japan are closely cooperating on their relationship with China, including on measures to see that tensions with China do not get out of control.
PM Modi and President Xi had met for seven hours over two days at Wuhan in April. They decided that they would ‘issue strategic guidance to their respective militaries to strengthen communication to build trust and understanding, to implement various confidence-building measures, which have already been agreed upon, by the two sides’. This meeting led to both militaries taking more measures to avoid tensions across disputed borders, like the prolonged standoff at Doklam. Likewise, PM Abe and President Xi focused on avoiding actions that could escalate tensions across disputed maritime boundaries in the East China Sea, during Abe’s visit to Beijing in October. China and Japan also agreed to cooperate on maritime rescue missions, to set up a military hotline and commence dialogue between their militaries. There has thus been a measure of congruence in the approach of India and Japan to maintain peace across their respective land and maritime boundaries with China.
Japan, unlike India, has significant financial and technological resources to play a major role in developmental projects in Indo-Pacific countries. India is, therefore, working in close cooperation with Japan on economic development projects across the Indian Ocean Region to ensure that countries in the region do not become overly dependent on China. While India has gone ahead with processing defence deals with Russia, Abe has also shown a degree of readiness to settle disputes with Russia over four islands seized by Russia during WWII. In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union agreed that two of these islands, Habomai and Shikotan, would be returned to Japan — something which did not happen because of continuing Cold War rivalries.
China has also been bending backwards to cultivate leaders and parties. In Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, China is supporting parties inimical to India. The large amounts of money that China poured in to finance projects patronised by the discredited and authoritarian government of President Abdulla Yameen in the Maldives and the efforts Beijing made to support him for re-election are widely acknowledged.
China also rushed to welcome Rajapakse as Sri Lankan PM, immediately after his appointment. This was even before he obtained parliamentary approval, which eventually was not forthcoming. China has alienated significant sections of people in Sri Lanka by this clumsy action. On the other hand, Western powers led by the US and Japan have expressed unhappiness at the hasty removal of the Wickremesinghe government and even froze economic assistance to Sri Lanka.
Worried about walking into a debt trap, Myanmar recently cut the size of Chinese investment in the strategic Kyaukpyu port. Economists in Pakistan now openly express unhappiness at what they see as Chinese exploitation in CPEC. Malaysia has rejected Chinese offers of aid for a massive railroad project. Similar sentiments are now being voiced about Chinese ‘aid’ across Africa and Central Asia.
There are indications that the US and the EU will not be averse to taking on China on its ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ by offering investments on more acceptable terms. This is an opportunity for India to work with Japan, the US and the EU to develop structures for multilateral investments in Asia and Africa to secure military and economic advantage in countries across the Indian Ocean.
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